All About Japan

The History Behind Japan's 'Janken' Game

Learning Japanese Deeper Japan

Rock-paper-scissors, or Janken in Japanese, is a cultural keystone in Japan, with all kinds of disputes, disagreements and predicaments being resolved through the game’s simple mechanics.

Rock-paper-scissors apparently originated in China (or, at least, that’s where the first historical mention of the game came from), and it’s used occasionally in western cultures to make mostly inconsequential decisions, but it’s arguably the Japanese that elevated jan-ken to an entrenched form of social interaction, starting with a variation called kitsune-ken that used a similar rule set. The featured image depicts a trio of women playing the fox (kitsune in Japanese) version of the game.

Another precursor to Japan’s janken was mushiken where players would choose from three different hand signs—a snail (left), a frog (middle) or a snake (right).

Janken is so ingrained into Japanese culture that it pops up everywhere. Restaurants and bars will often hold promotions that challenge guests to play a match with waiters and waitresses for a free drink or a discount. It’s also a common drinking game among friends and it’s so ubiquitous that there are countless permutations in the rules for how to resolve a tie or win the game. At least one university has even sunk significant manpower and resources into creating a robotic arm that wins janken games 100% of the time.

While western cultures may decide things with a coin toss, don’t be surprised if you’re challenged to a game of janken when visiting Japan—sometimes even when the stakes are fairly high. Just remember the phrase for initiating a game (“saisho wa gu, jan-ken-pon!“) and enjoy the simple beauty of knowing that, statistically, at least, you’ll win just as often as you lose.

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